Repost: On the Trail of the Hellhound
(Editor’s Note: Recently John Mellencamp has been in the news, promoting his new album No Better Than This, which comes out in August. He recorded a couple of songs for the new album in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly recorded some of his greatest songs. We’ve been told repeatedly that nobody knows where the recordings really took place, and there is no explanation in the press material for the album how they identified this particular room. But who cares, really – here’s our original post from 2008.)
Perhaps no musician is as influential as the bluesman Robert Johnson. Supposedly he sold his soul to the Devil so he could play his guitar like no one else. And maybe he did – his songs “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Dust My Broom” are part of the bedrock of American music. Johnson’s songs have been covered by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin, among many others.
His music comes from the heart of the Mississippi Delta where Johnson lived and played until he died in 1938 under mysterious circumstances. However, his entire catalog was recorded in Texas, during two short sessions in San Antonio and Dallas. The San Antonio sessions produced some of the songs listed above. Writer Dave Marsh once said, “Has there been any other single recording session that produced music so beautiful, so tortured, … so historically resonant? No.”
Johnson first recorded in November 1936 at San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel, located just a few blocks from Alamo Plaza. Now called the Sheraton Gunter Hotel, it has a few more floors than it did in Johnson’s day but it is still a nice place.
Some years back, I decided to stay a few nights in the Gunter close to where Johnson cut some of his most famous songs. I had long since replaced the hellhound on my trail with two rugrats on the back seat – so I took my family.
Nobody knows exactly where in the hotel the Johnson recording sessions took place, the records were destroyed in a fire. He was one of many acts recorded at the time, so producer Don Law also cut sides on country, gospel and Tex-Mex performers. My research suggested the sessions could have taken place on the ninth floor, far away from the noise of the street.
So there we were, in Room 911 where it was obviously old but also clean and spacious. It didn’t take long to realize no one up here was going to channel a long-dead bluesman with Nickelodeon blaring on the TV.
But late that night, when everyone was asleep, I heard a sound in the dark. It was barely audible, and I had to concentrate to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. It was low, almost like a whisper. It sounded like … someone humming. It could have been coming from another room, it could have been someone’s TV. The harder I listened, the softer it became. It sounded like … the blues.
Then it went away. I got up, turned on the lights, got a drink of water. We went downstairs the next morning, we looked at the Robert Johnson plaque in the lobby. The plaque was a project of the San Antonio Blues Society, and every year in November they have an event to commemorate Robert Johnson’s music.
You can go to the Sheraton Gunter hotel too, looking for Robert Johnson. San Antonio’s a great city, it has lots of stuff for visitors to do. The city also has its share of ghosts. It’s good to know that at least one of them can carry a tune.